Posts by: Matin Durrani

“Outspoken” scientist reveals his Hollywood life

Photograph of Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2014

Sean Carroll helps Hollywood use more believable science better in films. (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

By Matin Durrani

This blog is a shameless plug for the latest Physics World podcast, in which I talk to Sean Carroll – the California Institute of Technology cosmologist who also serves as a science adviser to Hollywood.

I chatted with Carroll when he was in the UK speaking at the recent Cheltenham Science Festival and, in the podcast, you can find out about his favourite science-fiction films and why he thinks it’s important to get the science in such films right. Carroll also reveals who he thinks he’s most like in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.

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Yeah but no but yeah but no but…

The various regions at the edge of thes olar system.

The various regions at the edge of the solar system. (Courtesy: Southwest Research Institute)

By Matin Durrani

Has the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a teensy weensy bit bored by this question, which has been going on for years now.

Last September, we blogged about a paper in Science that, yep, it had definitely left the solar system a year before – on 25 August 2012 in fact.

Previous to that, though, there had been other reports that no it hadn’t (June 2013), it really, definitely is getting near the edge, but hang on actually not yet (March 2013), we’re not quite sure (June 2011), of course it’s definitely heading for interstellar space (November 2009), it’s already right near the edge (or possibly not) (November 2003).

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The July 2014 issue of Physics World is out now

 

By Matin Durrani

Unless you’re prepared to modify our understanding of gravity – and most physicists are not – the blunt fact is that we know almost nothing about 95% of the universe. According to our best estimates, ordinary, visible matter accounts for just 5% of everything, with 27% being dark matter and the rest dark energy.

The July issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats, examines some of the mysteries surrounding “the dark universe”. As I allude to in the video above, the difficulty with dark matter is that, if it’s not ordinary matter that’s too dim to see, how can we possibly find it? As for dark energy, we know even less about it other than it’s what is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate and hence making certain supernovae dimmer (because they are further away) than we’d expect if the cosmos were growing uniformly in size.

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Physicist explains why Spaniards aren’t actually lazy

Graph showing when Spaniards go to work

Graph of latitude versus solar time for when people in Spain (red), Italy (blue) and the UK (black) start working. The blue line is sunrise at winter solstice while the green band is 30 minutes either side of this.

By Matin Durrani

We’re not the kind of people here at Physics World who resort to national stereotypes – if anything, physicists are pretty much the same the world over no matter where they’re from.

But in the case of Spain, there is a widely held (and probably unfair) view that the Spanish are a bit on the lazy side, saddled with a reputation for long lunches, snoozy siestas and late nights out.

In fact, the Spanish are aware of the problem and there has been much debate in the Spanish media over what can be done to improve productivity and working lives. A Spanish parliamentary commission last year even proposed that the country should turn its clocks back by an hour from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Doing so, the commision said, would improve “productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates”.

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Physics in the fast lane

By Matin Durrani

Most of us want everything in life right here, right now. From fast food to fast cars, none of us can be bothered to hang about any longer than absolutely necessary. Where’s your reply to my e-mail I sent five minutes ago? Why haven’t you responded to my Tweet? Do you really expect me to read that 500-page novel for fun?

It was perhaps as an antidote to the ever-faster pace of life that so much has been made of two physics experiments that recently produced new data for the first time in years. I’m talking, of course, about the “pitch-drop” experiments at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and the University of Queensland, Australia, which both consist of a glass funnel of sticky tar-like substance. A drop from the Trinity experiment finally fell last July, with a video of the event quickly going viral, while the Queensland set-up dripped this April for the first time in 13 years. (For more on why both experiments proved so popular, check out our great feature by Shane D Bergin, Stefan Hutzler and Denis Weaire from Trinity.)

But if you can’t be bothered to hang around for 10 years or more, you’ll be pleased to hear that physicists at Queen Mary University of London – led by Kostya Trachenko – have now set up a new pitch-drop experiment to explore the difference between solid and liquids on the much shorter timescale of just a few months.

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Art, physics and performance painting

Photo of artwork created by Adrian Pritchard

Artist Adrian Pritchard is a “performance painter” who here has created a public artwork by allowing coloured streams of viscoelastic fluids to mix. (Courtesy: Adrian Pritchard)

By Matin Durrani

I was in London at the end of last week to attend a meeting on “Communicating physics through the arts” (PDF), which had been organized by the Physics Communicators Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

Held at the IOP’s headquarters in London, the idea of the meeting was to “ask artists to explore how they use their knowledge of physics during the development of their work” and to see “how physics could be communicated to the public through their work”.

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Women Rock Science author bags new student-science award

Hadiza Mohammed

Hadiza Mohammed being presented with the inaugural IOP Student Science Publication Award last night.

The photo above shows me presenting the inaugural Student Science Publication Award, sponsored by the Institute of Physics and IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, to Hadiza Mohammed of the online magazine Women Rock Science. She is a working civil engineer currently doing a Master’s in advanced environmental and energy studies.

The award, which was launched this year, recognizes student journalists who produce a regular science publication and seeks in part to nurture the next generation of science writers. It forms part of the annual awards given by the Association of British Science Writers and was presented at a reception held at the Royal Society in London as the culmination of this year’s UK Conference of Science Journalists.

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Nanotechnology is out now

By Matin Durrani

Physics World Focus on Nanotechnology June 2014

One of the beauties of physics, I’m sure you’ll agree, is that it stretches from the very big (cosmology) to the very small (particle physics). In fact, the great questions at the heart of those fields may well have attracted you to physics in the first place. But a lot goes on in-between these extremes, not least at the nanoscale. It might lack the glamour of research into dark energy or the Higgs boson, but nanotechnology has far more of an immediate impact on everyday life than physics at either end of the length scale.

If you want to find out about some of those applications, take a look at the latest Physics World focus issue on nanotechnology, out now in print and digital formats. It covers, for example, the work of the UK firm P2i, which has developed a “dunkable” nano-coating that can keep a mobile phone functioning after being submerged in water for up to half an hour. Could be handy next time you go swimming.

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Seven lessons from Sean Carroll

Photo of Sean Carroll at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival

Sean Carroll in full flow at the 2014 Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Matin Durrani in Cheltenham

I made the short journey yesterday from Bristol to the regency spa town of Cheltenham, which this week is hosting its annual science festival. One of the largest such events in the UK, it’s been running since 2002 and has a packed programme of A-list speakers and topics ranging from genetics to geology, from cocktails to cake, and from the human brain to the Higgs boson.

My main reason for attending the festival, though, was to meet Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, whose book about the search for the Higgs boson (called The Particle at the End of the Universe ) was picked by Physics World last year as one of our top 10 books of 2013. Carroll was in the Gloucestershire town to give a one-hour talk about the Higgs, although the festival organizers were clearly working him hard as he also spoke in separate lectures on dark matter and dark energy, and on his role as a science adviser to Hollywood. (Carroll’s worked on films including Thor, Avengers Assemble and TRON: Legacy and even played a tiny role on TV’s The Big Bang Theory – stay tuned for more on that in our upcoming audio interview with him.)

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Adventures in Antarctica

By Matin Durrani

It’s the depths of winter in Antarctica right now, but in the new issue of Physics World magazine, there’s a chance to feast your eyes on some stunning images of scientific research in the White Continent, taken a few months ago by photojournalist Enrico Sacchetti.

Sacchetti’s photographs are amazing and in the article he explains his experiences of travelling to Antarctica and taking pictures in what is one of the world’s harshest environments.

“As soon as I stepped off the C-130 [plane], the alien nature of Antarctica was truly jolting…Almost completely absent of atmospheric pollution, the air was crystal clear,” Sacchetti writes.

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